Seriously? Don Blankenship can win that GOP Senate primary in West Virginia?
It sure looks possible. I doubt we’d see Donald Trump tweeting what he tweeted Monday morning, begging the state’s Republican voters to steer clear of Blankenship, if the Republicans weren’t afraid that he could win. In response, Blankenship went anti-swamp more than anti-Trump. Swampy Republicans were “misinforming” the president, whose agenda Blankenship would support in the Senate. In fact, said Blankenship, he is “Trumpier than Trump.”
How can this be happening? The guy spent a year in prison related to the deaths of 29 men in the worst coal disaster in the county in 40 years. What has it come to, that voters could do this? Of course even if he does win, it’s just the party nomination, not a Senate seat—yet. But we can no longer say anything’s impossible. I remember the geniuses who said Donald Trump becoming president was impossible. I was one of them.
I grew up in West Virginia, and I know—or knew, once upon a time—its politics very well. When I was a kid it was a fairly liberal state. For something else I’m writing, I just happened the other day to go look up the roll call votes on the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965. All five of the state’s House representatives (then; it only has three now) voted for both.
The Southernization of the state started in the 1980s as the number of union jobs decreased and social issues came to the fore. That crescendoed in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore there. It was a surprise to the national pundits but not to me. The state was pretty conservative already by then.
The main issue was coal, and one of the people who led the charge to the right was Blankenship, lavishing money on Republican candidates for the state legislature and most controversially the state Supreme Court. Slowly, the Democrats—except Joe Manchin—were beaten. By the time of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in April 2010, it was pretty much a one-party state.
But this of course goes well beyond one-partyism. It’s not as if the other two Republicans running aren’t right wing. They’re way over there. But one’s in Congress, and the other is the state attorney general. They’re swamp creatures. Voting for them isn’t a big enough middle finger to society, evidently.
Davitt McAteer is a lawyer in Shepherdstown in the eastern panhandle and a mine-safety hero. In the West Virginia I grew up in, he was recognized and honored as such. He’s been investigating mining disasters since Farmington 1968, which I remember as a kid (that’s Joe Manchin’s hometown, incidentally). He led one of the investigations into the Upper Big Branch disaster. He says the story Blankenship is peddling now, about the disaster being the fault of the government, is a top-to-bottom lie. “His assertion,” McAteer says, “is simply scientifically wrong.”
McAteer walked me through the specific issues at hand—the levels of methane in the mine and the ventilation issues that helped cause the explosion. In sum, he said, the mine was relying on a system of “trap doors” that had to be opened and closed at the right times to ventilate the mine, a technology that McAteer says is 100 years old.
Inspectors warned about this. And now Blankenship is blaming the inspectors. “Inspectors did a great job of trying to create and keep ventilation,” McAteer says. “He did not operate the mine in a safe way.”
West Virginia has been beaten and battered. There’s not much life in the southern part of the state. I have a friend who told me that he’d heard of people moving out of the state who were unable to sell their houses, just left them. You read all the time about men who used to make $70,000 or $80,000 with overtime now working three jobs to make $25,000. For many, this happened in the last seven or eight years, when the natural-gas market leveled coal.
So Blankenship, who’s been out of the game since the 2010 disaster, “has successfully pointed out that he created jobs and that in his absence these jobs have ceased to exist,” McAteer says. “It’s not true, but it doesn’t matter. If you’re a guy who’s out of work and you hear that, maybe it makes a certain sense to you.”
I suppose so. But there’s more to it than that. McAteer ascribes to Blankenship voters a rational motive, as if they’re reasoning this through. Maybe they are to some extent. But I think it’s more emotional. We’ve seen it before. What made Alabama Republicans nominate an accused pederast? Anger at the establishment. You call Roy Moore a perv? Well, if you hate him, that’s good enough for me, they said. I’m for him. Same with Blankenship. Same, for that matter, with Trump.
If Blankenship wins tonight, where does this stop? Because this is not a West Virginia thing. This is a GOP thing. Who’s next, an actual murderer? As long as he just killed a liberal, and not a “real” American, why not?
And I’m sure Manchin will be happy if Blankenship wins, as well he should be. The other two candidates are far more serious competition on paper. But then again Hillary Clinton thought that about Trump.